A Review of Joel Allen Schroeder’s Dear Mr. Watterson (2013)
By Jake Bann
Beloved. Adored. Revered. Unprecedented. Genius. Timeless.
These are just a few of the positive adjectives filmmaker Allen Schroeder employs in his Kickstarter-funded documentary about legendary cartoonist Bill Watterson and his classic Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. For the four Millennials out there who don’t know, Calvin & Hobbes was a nationally syndicated American comic strip that ran for an all-too-short 10 years: 1985 to 1995. The strip was featured exclusively in newspapers: no TV spinoffs, no lunchbox drawings, no feature film adaptations, no nothing. Chronicling the hilarious, often philosophical, always entertaining happenings of an imaginative six-year-old Blonde boy and his stuffed tiger, Calvin & Hobbes became the stuff of legend. Its expert artistry, reclusive author, and universal influence on every cartoonist and reader thereafter (as the film attests) are just a few of the reasons that make the strip worthy of a closer lens.
That said, it’s necessary to explain which medium Calvin & Hobbes dominated during its life span because, lucky for us, when Mr. Schroeder isn’t appealing to his audience’s sentimentality, he takes the time to trace the seminal strip’s print influences back into the far reaches of the 20th Century, even going so far as to uncover some of the author’s very early, very clearly rooted works. Admittedly, these are the moments any non-fan, non-cartoonist, non-Millennial, or just plain ignorant viewer will relish—because as often as Mr. Schroeder and most of his interviewees revere the comic (with a reverence that is by all means due), they unfortunately spend far less time supporting these claims.
The most enjoyable and insightful moments, for example, are when George Herriman biographer Michael Tisserand speculates that Krazy Kat (1913 – 1944) was the comic that had a profound influence on the idiosyncratic, imaginative, and personal qualities of Mr. Watterson’s style, or when Pearls Before Swine (2000 – ) author Stephan Pastis theorizes that Mr. Watterson’s stringent and legendary aversion to licensing (foregoing what one executive predicts was upwards of $300 – $400 million) was due to his fear of “losing control” of his comic. Oppositely, the moments we spend watching Mr. Schroeder pour over Calvin & Hobbes originals in library basements, or tracing hazy close-ups of the panels themselves can most assuredly be ignored without fear of missing out.
In short, there’s a very clear duality to this documentary that is at once most definitely crowdsourced— made to appease its 2,083 Kickstarter backers with positivity, sentimentality, and validation—at the same time that the film is interested in the unheralded appearance (and disappearance) of the comic and its essentially faceless author towards the beginning of the end of comics in print. As one cartoonist puts it, [sic] “there’s nothing wrong with being first, but there’s also nothing wrong with being last.” By the end of the film, one can’t help but postulate that Calvin & Hobbes was drawn with the same ferocity of a sailor on a burning ship.
Featuring appearances by actor Seth Green, FoxTrot author Bill Amend, and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed. With cinematography by Andrew Waruszewski and music by We Were Pirates.
Critic’s Rating: ★★½ 2.5 out of 5 stars
Watch the trailer here…